How the activism of Diaspora shaped the perception of the Second Artsakh war abroad

The international media presence in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war which started on September 27 has been considerably high. Dozens of major international outlets have sent their reporters to witness and cover the escalation of the conflict turned into a full-scale war. This was also due to the fact that Azerbaijan has restricted the access to the Internet and social media, as well as the access of foreign journalists to the country for a few weeks, despite the efforts of the Government to deny it. The ad-hoc report of the Artsakh Ombudsman suggests that between September 27 and November 10, 2020, over 390 foreign journalists from 190 foreign media companies were accredited, alongside with hundreds of Armenian journalists to report on the war. But the journalists who were physically in Nagorno-Karabakh were not the only reporters of the conflict.

Over the course of the last 2-3 months, the Armenian Diaspora had an essential role in shaping the perception and the narrative of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war. Where Azerbaijanis had well paid lobbyists sending pitches to different international outlets, Armenians had Diasporans whose grassroots activism and spontaneous campaigns helped to raise awareness about the Nagorno-Karabakh war and sensitize the international public to its impact and consequences. Diasporans’ social media activism also had a huge contribution to making our voices heard abroad amidst very mixed messages coming from major international outlets.

It was on September 28th when the Armenian High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs Zareh Sinanyan addressed the Diasporans all around the world, by calling upon them to stand up and take action in their respective communities, “The time has come for each of us to stand ready to do our part, each within our means, to defend our nation and our land”. 

Armenians in different parts of the world have held numerous protests, rallies, campaigns, road blocking during the whole duration of the war. Besides the awareness-raising activities, the Armenian diaspora organized fundraisers, mobilized humanitarian aid for the Armenians in Artsakh. Even the smallest Diaspora communities like the one in Croatia (40-50 people) were able to gain much-needed visibility, as well as ensure the media representation. Massive protests have been held on different continents, from Australia to the Americas. The Armenian community in LA reached 100,000 attendees during a Sunday afternoon rally. Those protests often grabbed the attention of the local news outlets or sometimes even national news publishers.

It is worth noting that the Azerbaijani community abroad has also held some protests, but due to the size and the scope of those protests they have received incomparably less attention. They were often organized not for a cause, but to balance out the Armenian voices and protests, sometimes even to cause a stir or violence. Their protests, however, fulfilled another important and dangerous objective. Due to the violence sometimes erupted during the clashes between the two crowds of protesters or between protesters and the police, the media often talked more about the clashes, violence and locals’ discontent rather than about the conflict and the demands of the protesters.

For example, Politico’s piece about a 2000-people protest in Brussels, which was peaceful from 8am until 1pm and resulted in a minor intervention by the police, says “Brussels police break up Armenian protest: Riot police used water cannons to disperse hundreds of people.” Half of the article explains that the police acted so because not everyone was wearing a mask and that the Armenian protesters did not leave voluntarily “at the scheduled time and they blocked a tunnel under Rue de la Loi, one of Brussels’ busiest streets”. Unfortunately, the message of the beautiful and peaceful protest, to which I have been personally part of, got lost in the noise of police intervention. The Brussels Times has adopted a similar attitude by focusing more on which highways were blocked, rather than on the message of the Armenian community. None of them took any quotes from the protesters.

Other examples of the shift from the cause of the protest toward its outcome were seen in the US. NBCLA talked about the Armenian and Azerbaijani protests in West LA by saying that the tension between the groups of protesters was due to the “border clashes between the two countries”. KTLA video report said protesters were “trying something different to draw attention to their message”, but the message and the cause of the protest were not specified. Instead, the journalist’s on-the-spot reporting discussed the big police presence, a possible stabbing and a clash between the protesters and the drivers in Fresno. KGPE later reported on the same incident precising that there were 3 people stabbed highlighting the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and not even dropping a word on the Nagorno-Karabakh war. This time nevertheless one Armenian-American protester was interviewed besides the police, but the quote included in the report didn’t mention the conflict or Nagorno-Karabakh at all. Another news channel, 6abc reported on the Armenian protest in Philadelphia by saying that “Armenia and Azerbaijan, backed by the Turkish government, are engaged in a bloody conflict over a disputed province.’’ The channel quoted an Armenian from Pennsylvania, Lena Ohannesian saying “The people who are living in that space are Armenian. They’re being killed. They’re being taken out of their villages and being taken out of their areas and all the men are going to war”. The deviation from the message and the essence of the topic of the protests was so explicit that the Armenians held protests against the media reporting separately. In California, several pro-Armenia demonstrators protested outside CBS Studios “expressing displeasure at the outlet’s coverage of Sunday’s ‘March For Peace’ rally”. The protesters reportedly have been told by a CBS employee “I hope you all die & I hope your country gets blown up”.

On the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, the biggest local centrist newspaper Jerusalem Post reported on the pro-Armenian protest focusing more on the role of Israel in arming Azerbaijan and the discontent of both Armenians and Israelis about  “knowingly selling drones used to attack civilian populations in Nagorno-Karabakh”.

French media reporting on the conflict has been more abundant because of the bigger context of events happening there, including the vandalization of the National Armenian Memorial Centre and the memorial to victims of the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian-hunting rallies by a Turkish ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves” group which were later banned in France and the general anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic attitudes in the country following the recent terrorist acts.

There were, undoubtedly, some examples of more cause- and people-focused reporting as well. For example, the Austrian Press Agency published a piece titled  “1,500 people protested in Vienna on Friday for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh”. The article mostly quoted the Chairman of the Armenian Apostolic Church Community, Dr. Vahagn Amirjanyan, who talked extensively about why the Armenian Community had been protesting. The Italian news outlet ask.a.news reported on the peaceful protests “against the Turkish-Azerbaijani aggression” organized in Milano by the Union of Armenians of Italy mainly relying on the quotes and demands of the protesters. The Canberra Times touched upon the pro-Armenian protests in Australia mentioning that “the protesters accuse the Australian government of “fence sitting”. Finally, Foreign Policy did a great and detailed report on a rally in Beirut’s neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud about the Diaspora being Armenia’s biggest asset in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. 

It’s undeniable that the Armenian Diaspora managed to draw public attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh war in many countries worldwide thanks to crowded peaceful protests, campaigns and rallies. It is however saddening to see that a lot of media outlets have used the opportunity to divert from talking about the conflict, the war and its implications and instead focused on provocation and violence surrounding the pro-Armenian protests in different countries. This kind of attitude by the media perfectly shows how politicians all around the world contribute to this conflict mostly by focusing on unnecessary details, often misrepresenting facts, engaging in toxic bothsidesism and endorsing a scandal rather than a substantive and constructive dialogue and honest representation of facts.

Viktorya Muradyan

Viktorya Muradyan is an Armenian journalist and researcher. She is currently pursuing her second MA degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at the College of Europe Bruges. She has previously contributed to Regional Post Caucasus, evnmag and France-Arménie. Viktorya was the former editor-in-chief of an online platform “Speak Freely,” while producing her podcast series “Eastern Dialogue.” Recently she has started a podcast series on Nagorno-Karabakh war.

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